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Will the US-Iran-Saudi alliance defeat ISIS? If so, to what effect?

When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia enters an alliance with Iran and the US coordinates security with President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime (against which, a year ago, America was providing money and weapons for the opposition); and when Iraq’s government led by Nouri Al-Maliki is put into the service of its closest ally, Iran. When such minor miracles occur in the blink of an eye, then we should look for the phenomenon called the “Islamic State” (ISIS). It has shifted all balance of power and brought together regional opposites, while igniting yet another war in a Middle East already full of them.

The question that arises now is regarding the source of the power that ISIS possesses. It has more than any similar Islamic organisation, so much so that regional and international alliances have been shifted against it with speed and fervour. Such an alliance of opposites is not unprecedented; it is a repeat of several others from earlier periods. They include the alliance of Britain’s Winston Churchill with Stalin, his communist arch-enemy, in order to face the threat of Hitler’s Nazis; and Saudi Arabia’s alliance with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, despite its well-known opposition to the Baath Party and all the other national parties, in order to face the Khomeini revolution in Iran. The government in Riyadh later welcomed 500,000 American troops on its soil to get rid of Saddam after his troops invaded Kuwait. We could also point to the alliance between fundamentalist Islam and the United States to fight against Soviet troops in Afghanistan, which evolved into 9/11 and the fierce “war against terrorism”. The list goes on.

The sources of ISIS’s strength lie in a range of key factors. For a start, it presents itself as a defender of Sunni Islam in the face of the marginalisation and exclusion of Sunnis in many parts of the Middle East, especially in Iraq, amid the silence of established Sunni reference points.

ISIS has adopted violent, cruel, and bloody methods to terrorise its opponents. Such an approach has been used in other countries in the past, by Islamic as well as secular “revolutions”. For example, the French Revolution resulted in 42,000 people being executed during its first phase, 17,000 of them by guillotine. The English Revolution in the mid-seventeenth century, known commonly as the English Civil War and which some historians mark as the real beginning of British democracy, entailed the death of 60,000 people. Perhaps the closest to what ISIS is doing now is the example of Genghis Khan, the Mongol leader who killed many of his own people before killing millions as part of his policy based on “shock and terror”. And let us not forget Abu Jafar Al-Mansur who established the Abbasid Empire on the blood of his opponents. I would like to emphasise that I recognise that these are terrorist massacres and any reproduction of them by ISIS is unjustified and has to be condemned. In referring to them I am trying to place ISIS and its acts in a historical context, even though there is a big difference between the values of the French Revolution and those of ISIS and the actions of both.

The failure of the so-called Arab Spring revolutions to achieve democracy and social justice and restore some pride and glory to the Arabs has led to dictatorial regimes being established on the ashes of the uprising in most countries. In addition, Western interventions derailed these revolutions. All of these factors led to the creation of a vacuum that was filled quickly by extremist Islamic organisations, including ISIS and Al-Nusra Front. They were provided with Arab and Western backing initially in the rush to topple the Syrian regime and its counterpart in Libya under Muammar Gaddafi.

ISIS has been able to take control over large areas of land, representing a quarter of Iraq and a third of Syria, managing and providing services to 6 million people living therein after years of bloody chaos, corruption and repression. Its umbrella body, Al Qaeda, was itself under the umbrella of the Taliban in Afghanistan and therefore had no autonomy and freedom to act on its own initiative.

The self-sufficiency of ISIS in terms of funding and weapons has been achieved largely through its successes against the Iraqi Army and the stores of the Free Syrian Army, providing the organisation with state-of-the-art weaponry, much of it from American sources.

Added to this is the fact that ISIS has been successful in recruiting over 50,000 young Muslims from around the world, 6,000 in the last month alone, due to admiration of the group’s victories. These statistics are likely to escalate dramatically in the next few months, as a large number of Muslim youths are frustrated with the state of the country and the ISIS fighters are seen as an example of the power they aspire to have. Teenage interest in violent computer games, which is simply a technological development from my generation’s avid following of violent war and cowboy movies, is not limited to Muslim youth; this turn of events is, therefore, hardly surprising.

Moreover, the transformation of most Arab countries into failing states, governed by weak central governments, is bound to have had an impact on the relative success of ISIS. It makes for an environment conducive to militant and extremist groups of a terrorist nature; Libya, Iraq, Yemen and many parts of Syria and Lebanon that are no longer under the authority of the central state are prime examples of this.

In the official statement issued by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al-Shaikh, on Tuesday, he said that “extremism and the ideologies of groups like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda” (he did not mention Al-Nusra Front) are Islam’s “number one” enemy. “These extremist groups have no place in Islam,” he added. He also stressed, and this is the most dangerous statement, that it is permissible from an Islamic viewpoint to kill the members of Al-Qaeda and ISIS because they are “an extension of the Kharijites”, a heretical sect of early Islam.

This statement by the head of the Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Fatawa (Islamic legal opinions) is the first and most powerful response to the Saudi monarch’s incitement against ISIS and his accusation of laziness directed at the scholars. It is also a reflection of the Kingdom’s strong concern and fear that this phenomenon will infect Saudi society.

This fear is real: an opinion poll on social media sites confirmed that 92 per cent of young Saudis support ISIS, its ideology and actions. Even if the margin of error is 50 per cent, the numbers would still be terrifying. This also explains the Saudi authorities’ announcement of an official opinion poll for Saudi youth, which, if it is actually conducted, would be unprecedented, as Riyadh generally does not recognise polls, just as it does not recognise democratic elections.

Can the Western regional alliance that is forming defeat ISIS? The answer to this question is not easy, as the US has been fighting Al-Qaeda for about 20 years and has invaded two countries under the pretext of eliminating the organisation, but it has not succeeded. Instead, the threat has grown, with branches across the Middle East and North Africa; today, it is evolving into a more dangerous form in the shape of ISIS and Al-Nusra Front. In addition, the Taliban emirate, which was toppled 13 years ago, is on the verge of returning to power in Afghanistan.

The involvement of Muslim countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria in the new alliance against ISIS is an unprecedented development, but it is difficult to say for sure if it will have better luck than the previous efforts by Arab and Muslim countries in the context of the fight against terrorism and Al-Qaeda in particular. We may, though, be surprised.

It remains to say that these alliances are temporary and will end once the reasons for forming them disappear. Churchill and the West continued with the Cold War against the “evil” Soviet Union until it fell, and the Islamic jihadist groups that allied with the West against the Soviets in Afghanistan turned against them and defeated them, partially or entirely, in Iraq and in Afghanistan itself. The rebels in Libya who fought against Gaddafi under the wings of NATO planes are currently being bombed in the same manner as their erstwhile opponents, perhaps even more aggressively.

ISIS is the greatest threat to the region and its governments and I believe that it will pose a threat to America and Europe in the future; the threats issued by ISIS to drown these countries in seas of blood in response to US bombing raids is an indication of this. However, I must also confess that I believe that ISIS is the direct product of Western and regional military and financial intervention in the two countries in which the group established its “state”, Syria and Iraq. Such intervention has led to the death of one million Iraqis and 200,000 Syrians so far, and these numbers continue to rise.

In the eyes of its opponents, the ISIS terrorist organisation has started a process of comprehensive and perhaps even radical change in the region that will not stop, regardless of whether it is defeated or not. The war against the group will drag on for a long time because eliminating it will not be easy; it will, in fact, cost much money and many lives. We only have to assess how much the US war against Al-Qaeda has cost so far to get some idea of what I mean. Some will disagree with me, but mark my words; this one is going to run and run.

Translated from Raialyoum, 19 August, 2014

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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